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Jason De León

Anthropologist, professor, and author of The Land of Open Graves and Soldiers and Kings

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Anthropologist Jason De León | 2017 MacArthur Fellow
  • About Jason De León

    Jason De León is the Executive Director of the Undocumented Migration Project, a non-profit that raises awareness about migration and assists families searching for their missing loved ones and Professor of Anthropology, and Chicana, Chicano, and Central American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. De León began his career as an archaeologist studying ancient tools in Mexico. During the course of archaeological fieldwork he met many people in Mexico who shared their often harrowing stories of migration with him. Inspired by those conversations, he began to study undocumented border crossings from archaeological, ethnographic, forensic, and visual perspectives. In his work, he investigates the lived experiences of people moving across various landscapes and borders to explain how poverty, violence, political instability, and climate change shape and fuel our current global migration crisis. For his internationally renowned work in shedding light on the complexity of migration and U.S. immigration policies, De León was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2017.

    Between 2000 and 2022, the bodies of over 3,600 border crossers were recovered in the deserts of southern Arizona with many more individuals still missing. In his award-winning book, The Land of Open Graves, and his lectures, Jason De León interrogates the U.S. border enforcement strategy known as Prevention through Deterrence (PTD). This federal strategy uses hyper-security measures around urban border zones to force migrants to cross through remote and depopulated regions where the natural environment functions as an impediment to human movement. This policy has resulted in the deaths and disappearances of thousands of people. Drawing on interviews from survivors and two decades of anthropological research, he concludes that not only did PTD fail to deter migration, but it turned border crossings into a deadly and violent social process experienced by millions of people. Recent increases in security measures at the US/Mexico border and across Mexico has led to a rise in robbery, extortion, and assault that has forced people to now rely on transnational gangs such as MS-13 for protection while migrating.

    In his upcoming book, Soldiers and Kings (Viking, 2024), Jason De León outlines how human smuggling has changed since 2014 following a joint effort by Mexico and the United States to crack down on migration from Central America. Through the lens of anthropology, Soldiers and Kings provides an intimate and up close look at the daily (and often dangerous) lives of those charged with getting people past immigration security forces. Human smuggling is a billion-dollar global industry that has long been understudied and misunderstood. Drawing on years of experience documenting the difficult and often brutal lives of the many Honduran smugglers he befriended in Mexico, De León illuminates the complicated nature of the border-crossing industry while introducing the reader to the many players who are caught up in its vicious cycle.

    As the director of the Undocumented Migration Project, a non-profit research, arts, and education collective, Jason De León raises awareness about migration issues while also working to help reunite families with their loved ones who died or disappeared while migrating. With the Undocumented Migration Project, De León has sponsored and organized the participatory art installation Hostile Terrain 94 (HT94), which is composed of over 3,800 handwritten toe tags. Each tag represents a migrant who died trying to cross the Sonoran Desert of Arizona between the mid-1990s and 2022, showing the exact locations where remains were found. With exhibitions in over 130 locations worldwide since 2020, the project raises global awareness about the realities of migration and the human costs of American border policies. De León’s work with the Undocumented Migration Project and his academic writing has been featured in numerous media outlets, including National Public Radio, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Al Jazeera, BBC, and Vice.

    Jason De León is a 2017 MacArthur Foundation Fellow and a National Geographic Explorer. He received his Ph.D. in Anthropology from Penn State University in 2008, and his bachelor’s degree in Anthropology from UCLA in 2001.

  • Speaking Topics

    Uncovering the Stories at the U.S.-Mexico Border

    In this lecture, Jason De León draws from his research and work as an anthropologist to not only speak on the human consequences of U.S. immigration and border policies but shares stories of hope and resilience. Starting with the history of these policies, he discusses "Prevention Through Deterrence," a strategy that is in place today to prevent migrants from coming into the United States by deliberately funneling people through the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. De León chronicles the journeys of people who have made dozens of attempts to cross the border and uncovers the stories of those who died during the process. Yet, within the hardship and grief, there is hope. De León shares stories of working with families of the deceased and missing to find closure and shares the inspiring tales of migrants that he has worked with over the decade.

    Soliders and Kings

    Based on the research for his upcoming book, Soldiers and Kings, Jason De León puts the spotlight on the billion-dollar human smuggling industry that resulted from both U.S. and Mexican immigration and border policies. Using his unforgettable photography and powerful prose, he documents the daily lives of Honduran smugglers who due to heightened security measures, make profit from transporting undocumented migrants across Mexico. In this eye-opening talk, he discusses the evolving, complicated relationship between transnational gangs, the human smuggling industry, and the migrants caught in this violent social process.

    Art and Writing as Means for Political Change

    In this impacting workshop, Jason De León speaks on how public outreach, art, and publicly engaged academic writing can act as powerful means of political change. Focusing on his global exhibition, the Hostile Terrain 94 (HT94), he shows how art can raise awareness of social issues. HT94, which memorializes the thousands who have died while migrating, creates a visual representation of the realities of the U.S.-Mexico Border and illustrates how decisions made by those elected to the U.S. government can lead to mass fatalities.

  • Video

  • Praise for Jason De León

    Praise for The Land of Open Graves

    The Land of Open Graves is an invaluable book, one full of rich ethnographic accounts of migrants, sharp analysis, and beautiful photographs by Michael Wells (as well as some by the migrants De León encounters). It is a strong indictment of the violence migrants face, particularly of a structural sort, and it calls us to "better understand how our worlds are intertwined and the ethical responsibility we have to one another as human beings." It deserves a broad audience.

    NACLA Report on the Americas

    De León confronts us with a vivid indictment of the killing fields on the US-Mexico border and reveals the brutality of global inequality in all its goriness and intimate suffering. A self-described refugee from archaeology, De León is revitalizing the field of anthropology by blowing apart the traditional subdisciplinary boundaries. With no holds barred, he offers new paths for theory, methods, and public anthropology.

    Philippe Bourgois, author of Righteous Dopefiend and In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio

    Jason De León has written a remarkable book. I know of no other ethnography of life and death on the borderlands that is more moving, theoretically ambitious, or powerful than this eagerly awaited work.

    María Elena García, author of Making Indigenous Citizens: Identities, Education, and Multicultural Development in Peru

    The Land of Open Graves is a politically, theoretically, and morally important book that mobilizes the four fields of anthropology to demonstrate beyond a doubt how current US border defense policy results in deliberate death. Beautifully written and engaging, it is a must-read for the general public and students across the social sciences.

    Lynn Stephen, author of Transborder Lives: Indigenous Oaxacans in Mexico, California, and Oregon and We Are the Face of Oaxaca: Testimony and Social Movements

    The Land of Open Graves is an invaluable book, one full of rich ethnographic accounts of migrants, sharp analysis, and beautiful photographs by Michael Wells (as well as some by the migrants De León encounters). It is a strong indictment of the violence migrants face, particularly of a structural sort, and it calls us to “better understand how our worlds are intertwined and the ethical responsibility we have to one another as human beings." It deserves a broad audience.

    NACLA Report on the Americas
  • Books by Jason De León

  • Media About Jason De León

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and Availability

  • 212 572-2013
  • Jason De León travels from California

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